Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The (Limited, Obsolete) Function of Cultural Conservatism

Unconscious Design

When was the hand axe invented?

Answer: it wasn't.



Although the hand axe appeared in the Lower Paleolithic, it would be presuming too much to say that it was invented. The same could be said for most of the innovations that have characterized human culture for thousands of years: music, language, baby talk, death rituals, mealtimes, proper names, rhythm, fire, and gossip did not originate from the creativity of any individual. Like the biological adaptation of morning sickness, human cultural adaptations arose gradually, necessarily in coevolution with our genetics.

It worked this way - slowly - because that's what works, in the long run. The shock of a genuine innovation would very likely be more than a fragile early human system could bear. We are all aware that most genetic mutations are either neutral or harmful; the fraction of genetic innovations that are beneficial is vanishingly small. Organisms have developed the conservative process of DNA repair to protect against these likely-harmful shocks to the system. Organisms arise naturally, without conscious invention, and processes exist to prevent innovations (mutations) from harming functioning organisms. In human culture, from the perspective of the individual, things are just done a certain way, and conservative cultural processes exist to prevent cultural innovation from harming a functioning group. The only time a limited cultural change may be welcome is when the existing system ceases to function; otherwise, innovation is (mostly correctly) regarded as dangerous.

Christopher Alexander, in his Notes on the Synthesis of Form, refers to the process by which simple societies slowly change as unconscious design. The extreme conservatism of simple, pre-industrial societies protects their functioning systems (from social organization to food production to shelter-building) from the danger of innovation.


The Burden of Complexity

Unconscious design and protective conservatism work well - until the burden of complexity overwhelms these simple mechanisms. Unconscious design processes (like biological evolution) cannot keep up with change beyond a certain level of complexity. (That's why massive extinctions frequently follow major environmental change.)

Alexander asks us to visualize, as a stand-in for a given human system,[1] a ten-by-ten (say) panel of light-emitting diodes, connected to one another in various ways. When a diode is "on," this symbolizes a bad fit - analogous to discomfort, pain, human misery, poor functioning, etc. When a light is "off," this symbolizes good fit (the absence of a problem). We want all the lights to be off - then we will have solved the design problem.

The probability of finding a solution to the problem is related to the density of interconnection between the diodes (the complexity of the system).

In real-life systems, changing one thing can change a lot of other things, too. Increasing the capacity of a teakettle may also increase its weight and cost, for instance. This is the essentially conservative message of all those fairy stories about making wishes.

Analogously, diodes in Christopher Alexander's imaginary diode box may be connected to each other such that turning one diode on or off turns one or more other diodes on or off. If only a few diodes are connected to each other, we have a pretty good shot at solving the problem just by dumb luck - turn off lights at random and see what happens, and very likely a solution will emerge.

However, when the diodes become sufficiently entangled, it becomes impossible to blindly tinker our way to a solution. If every diode is connected to every other diode, for instance, achieving a solution in this way is impossible.

Systems with dense, complex interaction of sub-parts may, from time to time, "hit on" a solution that functions for a while. But this is not stable. Any change in the environment that destroys this lucky "fit" will not be able to be remedied by a simple change in the system, because any change to one part will affect other parts, likely inflicting damage.

The more complex (interconnected) the system, the more incapable it is of successfully responding to environmental change.

Simple systems are stable, even given environmental change. Complex systems aren't stable in a changing environment. Beyond a given level of complexity, conservatism is a losing strategy.


Toward Conscious Design: Big Independent Parts

"Keep things as they are if they work, tinker and hope if they break" does not work to fix big, complex problems arising from a change in environment. We must instead approach big, complex design problems consciously.

Alexander's mathematical approach to complex design problems is to analyze the interconnections between the parts of the problem (the diodes, above), with the goal of identifying big independent parts. If we can identify a part of a design problem that doesn't interact much with the other parts of the problem, we can solve that, and then move on to the next piece.

One major problem with this method is that our language does not necessarily correspond to the "big independent parts" that are so important to identify if we are to have any hope of solving big design problems. It is highly unlikely that a word happens to correspond to a big independent part of the design problem - especially since societies complex enough to require conscious design are much, much newer than language.


How Conservatism Ensures Misfit

There are two ways in which cultural conservatism ensures a bad fit between design and environment. First, conservatism functions in simple societies to preserve a good fit; in order for a conservative process to be useful, good fit must already be present. The knowledge of this causes culturally conservative humans to insist that there is, in fact, a good fit when in reality, the fit is very bad indeed. Second, conservatism obviously functions to prevent the implementation of innovative solutions to problems. In these ways, conservatism perversely functions to preserve a bad fit.

I do not mean here to draw a line between modern political conservatives and modern political liberals, except perhaps connotatively. To varying degrees, we all have tendencies toward conservatism as part of our cultural and genetic legacy. This is expressed generally in the status quo bias and its near relatives (or perhaps subspecies), the endowment affect (loss aversion), risk aversion, and shame from norm violations.

We do not have a choice as to whether we feel the status quo bias; it is a part of who we are. We can, however, decide whether to instantiate it.

Jonathan Haidt and others have found that modern political liberals and modern political conservatives rely on different "moral foundations" in doing ethics. Conservatives rely more on what Haidt terms "authority/respect," "purity/sanctity," and "ingroup/loyalty" than do liberals; liberals rely more on "harm/care" and "fairness/reciprocity." Both respect for authority and preservation of purity or sacredness are essentially conservative functions in the sense outlined above: they function to blindly preserve the status quo, with no analysis of the goodness of the status quo.

The design problem for large, densely interconnected human systems has no chance of solution if the previously adaptive human tendency to conservatism is allowed to control the design process. Our tendency to conservatism is, rather, a part of the design problem that must be solved.



1. Alexander's example throughout the book is the design of a teakettle, although by the end he's designing simple villages. However, his model is of extremely broad applicability - software designers are at least as gay for Alexander's thinking and methods as are urban design nerds like me. The person who gave me my copy works on the search algorithm at Google.

11 comments:

  1. Status quo bias predisposes people to conservatism, but optimistic bias predisposes people away from conservatism. Conditioning on the existence of optimistic bias, there is some optimal amount of status quo bias. It's not clear whether people generally have too much or too little.

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  2. I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that optimistic bias is opposite in effect to status quo bias. Optimistic bias does not just crop up when contemplating future changes - it permeates thinking about one's present situation as well. Newlyweds think their marriages will last a lifetime; MBA students overestimate their future job success; smokers underestimate personal cancer risk. All of those are dealing with consequences of past actions.

    People self-deceive that the future will be great - a very adaptive strategy, but not one that necessarily conflicts with conservatism.

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  3. We probably have about the right amount of both biases for dealing with the challenges of the simple societies we evolved in. Which is to say, we are pretty fucked.

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  4. Sister Y,

    Well, fuckedness is relative. We're actually a lot closer in terms of fuckedness to the not-especially-fucked simple societies we evolved in than we are to a pessimally fucked society. I don't mean this to be comforting -- mildly fucked is still too fucked and we should try to unfuck things as much as we can.

    And what do you mean by "dealing"? Optimistic bias is good for dealing with a world full of loss and pain in the sense that it improves one's subjective experience, but it may not be good for building a society that has less loss and pain in it. So is optimistic bias negatively-externalizing and anti-social? This would be counterintuitive, since nobody likes complainers.


    Andy,

    I don't think there's an especially strong relationship, either inherently or statistically, between optimism bias and conservatism. It's probably a lot easier to think things are going well and will go well in the future based on an endorsement of how things are and how things are likely to be than based on an eagerness for something different.

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  5. We have better information about the status quo than we do about changes, so there is less scope for optimistic bias. Yes, once you clear the hurdle of initial status quo bias, optimistic bias and status quo bias work in the same direction, but the hurdle itself is beneficial. Because of status quo bias, people are less likely to get married, enroll in business school, or start smoking. And if people had even more status quo bias, they'd be even less likely to get married, enroll in business school, or start smoking, and in those respects, they'd probably be better off. For the single non-smoker with a bachelor's degree, optimistic bias ought to apply to the their imagined future with those conditions. But since single non-smokers with bachelor's degrees can largely observe that their lives currently suck, the effect of optimistic bias on the evaluation of their present condition is minimal. They can't observe whether their life would suck with a spouse, an MBA, and cigarettes, so optimistic bias has a strong impact on their evaluation of those conditions. Status quo bias acts as a check on that.

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  6. I think the benefits of status quo bias are evident even in today's complex world. The British and the Swedes can thank their status quo bias (surely, rather than a rational analysis of the decision whether to join the EMU) for protecting them from the fate being suffered by Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. (This is not to say that the British necessarily have more status quo bias than the Greeks, Irish, and Portuguese, but the former benefited from having enough status quo bias given the other factors that applied, whereas the latter suffered from having too little.)

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  7. But since single non-smokers with bachelor's degrees can largely observe that their lives currently suck, the effect of optimistic bias on the evaluation of their present condition is minimal. They can't observe whether their life would suck with a spouse, an MBA, and cigarettes, so optimistic bias has a strong impact on their evaluation of those conditions. Status quo bias acts as a check on that.

    I like this explanation. But why would optimistic bias act to inflate future-with-change and not future-without-change? A single non-smoking person with a bachelor's degree, to take up your example, might just as well be motivated by optimistic bias to NOT make a change, thinking that something good is bound to happen. True, he has a taste of what his current state is like and can project that into the future, but the whole point of optimistic bias is that people distort information in a particular direction. He's just as likely to distort information about his current state as about a different state.

    For instance, I think many people do not commit suicide when doing so would be rational because of optimistic bias.

    Also - all the examples I chose happen to be situations where people have made costly, irrevocable decisions and may feel compelled to justify them. I wonder if optimistic bias is as strong in the absence of such sunk cost situations.

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  8. Because of status quo bias, people are less likely to get married, enroll in business school, or start smoking.

    I think people often change because of the status quo bias. Getting married certainly strikes me as a possible example of that. The expectation to marry is a pretty long-standing tradition, so it seems to me that people may get married (or at least become marriage-oriented - and money-oriented in the case of going to business school) or start smoking to preserve a greater status quo, i.e., remaining an accepted member of the group (starting smoking because of peer pressure is a textbook example, actually). Maybe there is another name for this, but I have not encountered it.

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  9. I was trying to put this into words, too.

    Status quo bias applies not only to an immediate present state, but to a particular status quo "life pattern."

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  10. The better information you have, the harder it is to distort. I'm not saying that optimistic bias doesn't affect the status quo also, just that it doesn't affect it as much, because we have relatively more solid (less malleable) information about it.

    If optimistic bias about the status quo prevents people from rationally committing suicide, optimistic bias about their suicide attempts also motivates people to make unsuccessful suicide attempts that leave them worse off.

    In general, most ideas are bad ideas, but many such bad ideas appear to be good because of optimistic bias. Status quo bias raises the bar for such bad ideas.

    I think my argument applies to conventional life patterns as much as it does to individual states. We can observe the life patterns of those around us, so we have more solid information about them than we do about life patterns that are less common or only imagined. Obviously the advantage of status quo bias fails in certain cases. (If you're young and all your friends smoke, you typically don't observe them getting lung cancer, so you actually have bad information about the status quo life pattern.) But the general tendency, broadly across a wide variety of different decisions, is that status quo bias compensates for optimistic bias.

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  11. The rule of law is conservative.
    The rule of reason is liberal.

    Democracy is the rule of law.

    You figure it out.

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